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Gophers focus on defense as spring practice opens

MINNEAPOLIS -- Glen Mason has always been a hands-on coach,
but he's taking that to another level during spring practice.

"I'm going to teach tackling," the Minnesota Gophers coach
said Tuesday on the first day of spring practice. "I don't know if
I'll be any good at it, but I'll teach it."

His defense needs all the help it can get.

The Golden Gophers ranked 75th in the nation in total defense
last season, routinely missing tackles and giving up big chunks of
yards on third-and-long situations.

Not surprisingly, defense is the No. 1 priority heading into the
spring.

"We need to make a big improvement on the defensive side of the
ball," Mason said. "I was not happy last year. ... We should've
collectively played better defense last year, we didn't."

Seven starters return from last year's unit, which has a new
coordinator. Incumbent Greg Hudson left to become the defensive
coordinator at East Carolina, and Mason promoted David Lockwood
from secondary coach to coordinator.

Lockwood was the interim defensive coordinator for Minnesota's
20-16 victory over Alabama in the Music City Bowl, a game in which
the defense played much better.

Mason said the two keys to immediate improvement will be pursuit
and tackling, both of which were lacking for most of last season.
Mason, who has always been more of an offensive coach, took more of
an active role in the defense in preparing for the bowl game and it
seemed to help.

"The thing that hit me in the face, we were much improved in
that area," Mason said. "We exhibited those type of things much
better against Alabama than we did in previous part of the year."

Free safety John Pawielski said he'll welcome Mason's increased
presence at practice.

"It's good for us," Pawielski said. "When he gets down there,
guys work harder."

On offense, the Gophers will continue to do what they do best --
run the ball.

Marion Barber III left early for the NFL, but Laurence Maroney
remains in a deep backfield that also includes Amir Pinnix and Gary
Russell.

"Will we miss Marion Barber? The answer is yes," Mason said.
"He was a great football player for us. But saying that, if we
were going to lose a great football player early, and there's one
position where we could afford to lose one, it's running back."

Maroney rushed for 1,348 yards and 12 touchdowns last season,
but Mason made it clear losing Barber not turn the Gophers' offense
into the Laurence Maroney Show.

"As much as we run the football, you need more than one running
back," Mason said.

Quarterback Bryan Cupito said he is confident that Maroney can
be the man and make things easier on him in his second season as a
starter.

"I think he's energized," Cupito said of Maroney. "I know
he's got the talent. He can carry the load by himself if he has
to."

In all, the Gophers return 15 starters from a 7-5 team,
including three on the offensive line, which again figures to be
the team's strength. That has Mason optimistic.

"I really like this team," Mason said. "It's because of the
players and how they go about their business and handle
themselves."